A few weeks ago, on Good Friday, I stood outside, facing a plain, life-sized wooden cross. I was freezing. Rather appropriately for a day of somber remembrance, Good Friday was bitter, gray-skied, and windy.
I stuffed my hands deeper in my pockets and focused on the reading. I was making an outdoor Way of the Cross, and the meditation for this particular station caught my attention. The words were from the poet T.S. Eliot:
Oh my soul, be prepared for the coming of the Stranger.
Be prepared for him who knows how to ask questions.
It’s a section from Eliot’s play “The Rock,” and a very famous portion of it, the “Choruses.” Eliot himself is an interesting figure. One of the greats of modern literature in the English language, a tortured relationship with the Church, and some beautiful poetry.
But even without knowing all this background information, the words are still striking. The lines describe mankind without God:
They constantly try to escape
From the darkness outside and within.
I see this in my own life when I’m far from God. The “darkness outside and within” catches my attention. The poem continues to describe the Incarnation and Redemption, two things I was, at that moment on Good Friday, celebrating in a special way:
Then it seemed as if men must proceed from light to light, in the light of
Through the Passion and Sacrifice saved in spite of their negative being;
Bestial as always before, carnal, self seeking as always before, selfish and
purblind as ever before,
Yet always struggling, always reaffirming, always resuming their march on
the way that was lit by the light;
Often halting, loitering, straying, delaying, returning, yet following no other
I found myself meditating on the words of the poem: “always struggling, always reaffirming, always resuming their march on / the way that was lit by the light.” I found myself using these phrases to pray, to ask Christ light my path and help me continue on that way despite my own halting, loitering, straying, and delaying.
For me, this poem had become a prayer.
Because of the power of this experience, I would like to share a few poems to take to prayer. Praying the words of the saints of the Church is powerful, but those officially recognized, canonized saints are not the total sum of the Church. In addition to Eliot’s “Choruses from The Rock,” I would like to offer these poems for prayer. Like St. Paul, read them and test them – are they good?
Prayer by Maria Howe
I found this Maria Howe’s work through a friend’s recommendation, and I fell in love with this poem especially. I appreciate the honesty of the poetic voice, and that, in the midst of her distractedness, she turns to God, begging him to help her pray.
Often I feel the weight of my own distraction. I have a desire to pray, yet I know my own incapacity to realize this desire. This poem reminds me to return to the very reason I want to pray – my relationship with God. For me personally, I agree with Howe. I can bet on God’s loving response to my failings.
To Live in the Mercy of God by Denise Levertov
Pay close attention to this poem. A quick reading and you get the sense that “the mercy of God is really great. It’s more wonderful than all these things in nature.” While Levertov does compare the mercy of God to floating and flying and the massive power of trees, she goes deeper. She writes,
To live in the mercy of God. The complete
sentence too adequate, has no give.
Instead of “comfort” she sees “awe.” God’s mercy is not a nice addition to our world. It overpowers it. Yet, she then realizes
And awe suddenly
passing beyond itself. Becomes
a form of comfort.
Becomes the steady
air you glide on. . .
God’s mercy, though “awful” as in “awe-ful,” makes us secure. It is steady. This poem guides my meditation on the richness and wonder of God.
I want to join Levertov's celebration of God's mercy. Eliot describes our lives as a journey of straying and returning – and I agree. But even the miracle of our return to Christ can become mechanical. I forget that the straying and returning are the place where I know who Christ is and how if He matters in my life.
Levertov describes God’s mercy in powerful terms. I take this poem and hold it against the complementary and characteristically provocative statement of Pope Francis: “The privileged place of encounter is the caress of Jesus’ mercy regarding my sin.” Have I experienced this mercy?
Gerard Manley Hopkins was a Jesuit and a Victorian, but don't let either stop you from enjoying his unique poetic style, a style that hearkens to Old English. Hopkins takes his considerable skill as an artist and showers us all in poems of prayer.
The first, God's Grandeur," is a hymn to the beauty of the created world. It’s one of Hopkins’ best loved poems, a personal favorite, and a beautiful way to see the world anew through another person’s perception.
The second is more painful. The voice in this poem is like Job’s from the Old Testament. When Job loses everything from his family to his property to his health, he despairs, “Let the day perish in which I was born" (Job 3:3).
God’s response to Job is itself divine poetry. It begins with the question, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” (Job 38:4). Then the passage continues, reminding Job of his dependence on God and of the dependence of the entire world on God.
Hopkins echoes Job’s lament.
Why do sinners’ ways prosper? and why must
Disappointment all I endeavour end?
I relate to Job’s suffering and to Hopkins’ as well. And, like both of these figures, I desire to speak with God of my suffering, to ask Him, “Why?” even as I pray for Job’s humble response and Hopkins’ final verse, “Mine, O thou lord of life, send my roots rain.”
While four poets by no means cover the Christian experience, I have hoped simply to showcase a few that are especially important to me. Please share others. Most importantly, please take these poems: see if you find yourself in Hopkins’ suffering, Levertov’s rejoicing, or Howe’s frustration. What do they teach you?